We grew up with words such as "Charkas", "Chibsi basta", "Adiga" and Kafkasia. My grandmother is Circassian and as children we were constantly reminded of our Circassian roots with regular trips to visit my ninety year old grandfather in "Marj al Sultan" an area heavily populated by "Charakess" (Circassians). The Charkass are a strange people with an even stranger history mired with tragedy, as so many in our region do. I understand that in Jordan they form a vital part of the population and are particularly fine soldiers and protectors for the King of Jordan.
The Circassians are a people who inhabited the Caucasus mountains between Turkey and modern day Russia and were renowned horsemen, vigorous and noted for their long lives and sharp wits. They are also fiercely devoted to Islam and that area, along with most of central Asia, had it's cultural and political focus south towards Baghdad and the Middle East for a long time until the rise and expansion of Czarist Russia. It was the Czar's decision to expel whole Circassian communities which led my great, great grandfather to travel through Turkey with his sister. On the way, they were way-laid by bandits and his sister was kidnapped, lost forever somewhere in the north of Syria. His search for her was futile, so he continued on until reaching Damascus, where he settled, married and became a farmer. This was the late 19th century and this is how my grandmother told me about our past. A past mired with tragedy, politics and loss. The Circassians have never forgotten their roots and whilst they are now diluting in the melting pot of Syrian society, there is still a strong sense of identity amongst them. At the risk of stereotyping them, the men are not particularly religious however it is the women who instill Islam in their children from a young age. Circassian culture is deeply rooted in honour and tradition, their dances are vibrant and beautiful with the men taking pride in their legendary dance involving squatting and kicking alternately between both legs (requires thighs of steel!). The women dance gracefully and beautifully, breathtaking for me to see any time. The high morality of the Circassians is almost legendary in history, as is the beauty of the women.
Why am I rattling on about the Circassians now? Why, since I have hardly ever blogged about what is happening in Chechnya? It is I assure you not due to indifference and I follow the news there keenly. However, when I read articles like this, I feel enraged for that beautiful land, forgotten by Muslims in the Middle East, abandoned to the Russians for political pragmatism. Yet almost two hundred years of ethnic cleansing, war and cultural assimilation have made the Kafkas intensely attached to their faith and have had no effect on them.
The Guardian has recently published an article about the struggle for the "soul" of Chechnya. Apparently there too, there is an attempt to subvert Islamic beliefs through the supposedly "safe" channel of Sufism. Spearheading this effort is the noble President of Chechnya, the strongman selected by Russia (pictured above) Ramzan Kadyrov. A man who keeps a pet tiger and uses blowtorches on members of the political opposition just for kicks. A man whose father also worked for the Russians and was assassinated. Shamil Basayev, the legendary 19th century leader who had resisted the Russian invasion fiercely was also a Sufist, but this new attempt is nothing but an attempt to create an institutional, docile Islam that is subservient to the government.
The West forgets Chechnya, the Arabs forget it too. We only remember what is happening when the "militants" take over a theatre, or a school. The heavy handed brutality of the Russians is ignored, instead it is the militants who are condemned, yet the audacity of these actions used to strike a chord within me. The theatre seige was led by a charismatic, handsome young man who in any other country would have been more concerned with his studies or with his future but instead had devoted himself to something higher than selfish materialism or hollow nationalism. More than half the group in that standoff were women, with only their eyes showing. These "Black Widows" were the wives and daughters of Chechen men who had been killed by the Russian security services. I remembered seeing a photo of one of them slumped backwards, dead, at the end of the seige, devoted to her bloody cause to the very end.
I constrasted that with another image I had seen of one, her beautiful eyes the only thing visible. Seductive, deadly and sensual. She couldn't have been more than twenty years older. A chechen "Sana Mheidly" or Leila Khaled. The thought of her lying dead, lifeless, touched me with a sadness that I still remember. Who was she? What was her name? What was she like? Did she laugh much in better times? Did she even know better times? I guess the "masculine protectiveness" within me kicked in, seeing a female lying dead in that carnage, someone whom I had this historical, religious and cultural connection to. Yet why was she different from any of her male comrades? I have no right to feel that way for her. I imagine that was how she would have wanted to be remembered, an equal of her peers, martyred for her cause in her final Golgotha which was ignored by the world. Equality of the genders to the extreme.
The school seige too, triggered headlines, inwardly I prayed that all would go well, but also that the men would escape and no bloodshed would occur. Sadly, this did not happen. Instead, there was a bloody and ridiculous attempt to break the standoff. The newspapers were filled with lurid details of the deaths of children and civilians, as well as the death of most of the group in a desperate last ditch struggle. I heard sadly of the capture of a few of those men, realising that a fate worse than death awaited them now. We have never heard of these again and probably never will.
I don't know why I write of these things, I guess it is because a part of me will always be Circassian. Not many teenagers would have grown up hearing the name Dodayev, or have known that his death was a sad day for all Charkass. The world might have forgotten these people, but Islam and their own very real tenacity have given them the other worldly confidence of a people who have turned their backs to the world and those in it. It's only logical that their enemies would now try to undermine and subvert those beliefs. This is my tribute to them and their struggle.